Democracy & Technology Blog BitTorrent delays no big deal


I was honored to participate on Grover Norquist’s “Leave Us Alone” radio program with guest host Derek Hunter to discuss Comcast’s attempts to “block” certain Internet traffic, as reported last week:

NEW YORK (AP) — To test claims by users that Comcast Corp. was blocking some forms of file-sharing traffic, The Associated Press went to the Bible.
An AP reporter attempted to download, using file-sharing program BitTorrent, a copy of the King James Bible from two computers in the Philadelphia and San Francisco areas, both of which were connected to the Internet through Comcast cable modems.
We picked the Bible for the test because it’s not protected by copyright and the file is a convenient size.
In two out of three tries, the transfer was blocked. In the third, the transfer started only after a 10-minute delay. When we tried to upload files that were in demand by a wider number of BitTorrent users, those connections were also blocked.

Comcast concedes it “delays” some Internet traffic, temporarily, during periods of peak load, to improve surfing for the majority of its customers. None of the traffic is permanently blocked.
Cable companies have invested over $100 billion in the last decade upgrading their networks. Still, no broadband network has infinite capacity. A small number of users generate a disproportionate share — over half — of the traffic on Comcast’s broadband network. When necessary to relieve congestion, Comcast delays file sharing, which allows users to download content stored on someone else’s PC rather than a corporate or institutional file server. File sharing, of course, has made headlines in the past because many use it to swap copyrighted materials without permission — although there are many other legitimate uses.
During periods of peak usage, network operators can either let all packets of information crawl at the same slow speed or they can allow higher-priority traffic to travel faster by slowing down some of the low-priority stuff. It’s like the difference between traffic congestion on a highway — where everyone gets trapped; versus a railroad — where trains carrying perishable cargo go first.
Most network operators do manage broadband traffic.
Comcast and other broadband providers are constantly increasing their network capacity. Reuters reported last month, for example, that Comcast shares have “fallen as investors worried the company’s cash flow will be hurt as the company needs to spend more to cope with stiffer competition from rivals.” Saddling Comcast with additional regulation would further diminish investor appetite for costly upgrades.
Some say Comcast’s customers have no way of knowing how much bandwidth usage is too much, and that isn’t fair. But think about it: If Comcast were forced to specify a bandwidth cap, that could unnecessarily limit what the heavy users can do when there isn’t congestion.
Full disclosure sounds great in theory, but would lead to more detailed restrictions which could be inconvenient for everyone.

Hance Haney

Director and Senior Fellow of the Technology & Democracy Project
Hance Haney served as Director and Senior Fellow of the Technology & Democracy Project at the Discovery Institute, in Washington, D.C. Haney spent ten years as an aide to former Senator Bob Packwood (OR), and advised him in his capacity as chairman of the Senate Communications Subcommittee during the deliberations leading to the Telecommunications Act of 1996. He subsequently held various positions with the United States Telecom Association and Qwest Communications. He earned a B.A. in history from Willamette University and a J.D. from Lewis and Clark Law School in Portland, Oregon.